Hopwood DePree is a Hollywood actor, screenwriter and producer who’s just embarked on a new career: historic house restoration ... on the other side of the Atlantic. Sitting in Los Angeles and googling his family tree, DePree discovered that for centuries, the Hopwoods had owned an ancestral home near the town of Rochdale in the north of England and that Hopwood Hall, as it is known, is now derelict and in danger of collapse.
DePree decided to go to England and save the 600-year-old pile.
When he arrived, he found a sprawling brick-and-stone mansion with 60 rooms — a crumbling, rubble-strewn but still magnificent wreck.
“When I walked into the hall and saw all the beautiful ancient carvings and fireplaces, that’s what really got me. Then they took me into a room and said, 'This is where your 14th-great-grandfather was born.' We just don’t have that history in America. So it made me think, 'Wow! This has to be saved,'” DePree explained as he took Marketplace on a tour of the building.
Tall and tanned, the youthful movie producer doesn’t look the part of conservationist, let alone lord of the manor. But leading the tour through the rubble, over the piles of broken plaster and along the plank walkways, DePree pointed out the hall's many features with proprietorial pride and enthusiasm.
“Look at this fireplace!” he said breathlessly. “It’s called the Lord Byron Fireplace. It’s thought to be a gift from Lord Byron when he came to stay here for two weeks in the early 19th century.”
Packed with fine architectural features, the house nevertheless has lain empty for years and has fallen prey to vandals and thieves. They smashed some of the ancient doors and ornate cornices. They ripped the lead from the roof. The rain came in, and, said local conservationist Bob Wall, who’s fought a long campaign to save the Hall, the rot set in.
“We’ve had the lot: wet rot, dry rot, brown rot, cellar rot. There are five different types of dry rot, and we’ve had three of them here,” he said.
DePree’s branch of the family last saw the house in the 18th century before migrating to America, but there were Hopwoods living here until the 1920s. The hall is now owned by the local council, which, Councilor Janet Emsley admitted, let the building fall into disrepair due to lack of funds.
“There are so many demands on the council’s resources,” she said. “Some things have to be sacrificed, and unfortunately, Hopwood Hall was one of the sacrifices.”
But, galvanized by the enthusiastic American, the council and Historic England, the official body charged with protecting the country’s architectural heritage, agreed to put up half a million dollars between them to pay for emergency work to stop the building from falling down.
“We’re happy that somebody is taking an interest in one of our buildings and is working towards it being restored,” Emsley said. But isn’t it odd that it has taken an American to instigate the restoration?
“He may be American, but he’s got British roots. He’s a member of the Hopwood family,” she countered.
The council has agreed to sell DePree his ancestral home for a “negligible sum” so long as he comes up with a viable, long-term plan for the hall and the money for a full restoration. That won’t be a “negligible sum.” It could be as much as $15 million.
DePree is confident that he can raise the money from grants, donations and from private investors. As a movie producer, he may well have the ideal skill set to generate the necessary funds. Walking into every room at the hall, he can conjure up the past and the future and see the revenue-raising possibilities.
“We’re in the Georgian Room now. You can see it’s a large room with a big bay window, high ceilings where a grand chandelier once hung. This was probably used as a ballroom. I can almost see and feel and hear the laughter and the party and the fun that happened in this room. I envisage bringing it back to that as an event space,” he said.
DePree believes his ancestral home could thrive as a country house retreat for special occasions, a place to vacation, take a course and learn a new skill. The transformation could take a decade, but he said he is determined to ensure that “this magical house survives for a few more hundred years.”